Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage
South Africa has a hugely rich and diverse maritime and underwater cultural heritage.
Although historical shipwrecks have tended to dominate many South African’s perceptions of what constitutes our national maritime and underwater cultural heritage, the record of our long association with water is much broader and extends far back into prehistory.
Aside from shipwrecks, the archaeological record that constitutes our maritime and underwater cultural heritage includes large numbers of coastal fish traps and thousands of pre-colonial shell middens which reflect prehistoric human exploitation of marine resources. Numerous coastal cave sites with substantial and very significant archaeological sequences indicate that this interaction with the sea dates as far back in time as the Middle Stone Age, more than 100,000 years ago.
Acheulean hand axes which may be up to 1.5 million years old have been recovered from the seabed in Table Bay, Cape Town and are indicative of potential submerged prehistoric landscapes off our shores dating from times of lower sea level during past ice ages.
A handful of rock art depictions of sailing vessels believed to have been painted by South Africa’s indigenous San and Khoi populations reflect the contact between them and European mariners after the end of the 15th century.
South Africa’s geographical position at the mid-point on the maritime trade route between Europe and the East from the late 15th century onwards means that its recent history is inextricably linked to the history of the rest of the world. This is reflected in the nearly 3 000 historical shipwrecks scattered around our coast.
In addition to these wrecks, our maritime and underwater cultural heritage includes many other sites associated with European maritime activities, such as shipwreck survivor sites, and maritime infrastructure like lighthouses, harbours and dockyards.
A tantalising, but as yet unproven potential element of South Africa’s maritime heritage are shipwrecks and other sites that relate to pre-European, Indian Ocean maritime exploration and trade along the South African east coast.
SAHRA’s Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit
SAHRA’s Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage (MUCH) Unit is tasked with protecting and managing South Africa’s maritime and underwater cultural heritage. The Unit manages maritime and underwater cultural heritage resources along the entire South African coast, as well as in and around inland waters such as lakes, rivers and dams. This includes site inspections and site monitoring. The Unit processes applications for permits to conduct activities on shipwrecks sites or for activities that may affect sites. In addition, it assesses and comments on Environmental and Heritage Impact Assessments and is available to answer queries from the public in relation to maritime and underwater cultural heritage.
The Unit strives to expand the traditional view of maritime and underwater cultural heritage management by promoting a broad and representative range of sites through it’s activities. It’s aims are to bring maritime and underwater cultural heritage management in South Africa into the heritage mainstream, showcase the shared nature and universal significance of this exciting heritage resource and raise public awareness of an aspect of our national heritage which is often overlooked and ignored because much of it is hidden beneath the waves.
Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage and the Law
All archaeological artefacts and sites in South Africa are protected by the National Heritage Resources Act (No. 25 of 1999). This includes any ship- or aircraft wreck more than 60 years old, its contents, and any other archaeological material in or on the seabed that meets the same age criteria.
The law of salvage does not apply to historical shipwrecks in South African waters because they are defined under the Act as archaeological material and, as such, are the property of the State, administered by SAHRA in trust for the nation.
Maritime and underwater cultural heritage sites or material may not be disturbed, except under the terms of a permit issued by SAHRA.
A permit is not required to visit most maritime and underwater cultural heritage sites, provided they are not disturbed or interfered with and that no artefacts are removed or damaged.
Permits to disturb shipwreck sites are generally only issued for activities which have a strong scientific basis, clear research questions, adequate funding, suitable provision for artefact conservation and curation, and will result in the generation of new knowledge about our maritime and underwater cultural heritage.
Applications for shipwreck permits must be made through SAHRIS, SAHRA’s online heritage inventory and case management system.